On This Day: December 7, 1941: “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

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Here is a cool fact about my home state, little Rhode Island:

There is only one newspaper in the United States that comes out on Sunday afternoon, (as opposed to Sunday morning) and that is the local paper for Westerly, (a small town in Rhode Island), called The Westerly Sun.

Because The Westerly Sun comes out at the odd time of 3 pm on Sunday, it was the only newspaper in the entire country to report the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on that day, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 – on the day it actually happened. If you look at that NY Times front page, the date, naturally, is December 8, since it didn’t go to the presses until the afternoon of December 7.

The Westerly Sun is a teeny little local newspaper … and it was the FIRST and ONLY one on that day of days.

I am picturing that tiny clapboard newspaper office in Westerly, off route 1 … a place I have driven by many times … a newspaper with a miniscule circulation. It is a Sunday morning and the staff of the newspaper, who normally report on school committee meetings and water board issues and the local police beat are all there, on the forefront, putting the front page together on that historic awful day.

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made what is now known as one of his most famous speeches (in a lifetime of famous speeches). Interesting factoid: The speech originally read “a date which will live in world history”, but Roosevelt crossed that out and put in “infamy” instead. Similar to the editing out of the word “property” in the Declaration of Independence, so that the statement then became not “life, liberty and property” but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the crossing-out of the words “world history” and changing it to “infamy” elevated the speech from the present catastrophic moment into something almost mythic. “Infamy” is a good word. It is propaganda, sure, like most great speeches are. What has been done to us yesterday will always live on “in infamy”. History, and posterity, are not in question, “world history” is a given with an event such as this one so it doesn’t even need to be mentioned: but history will always see this day as “infamous”. That is a moral judgment on the events of that day. It is a condemnation. Roosevelt’s notes and edits are preserved in the National Archives:

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The speech, as it was read:

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

30 minutes after Roosevelt finished his speech, Congress declared war on Japan.

And here is a chilling telegram from the morning of December 7, 1941:

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9 Responses to On This Day: December 7, 1941: “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

  1. matty boldt says:

    thats great info 4 my report

  2. Jane says:

    As a child, I had some friends who had “cool” birthdays – 4th of July, Lincoln’s birthday(back when we actually marked the occasion specifically), etc. When I asked my mother why I didn’t have something special about my birthday she told me about Pearl Harbor. Back in the 60′s it was still more widely marked as a remembrance day and I was oddly proud of being connected to it.

    Interesting article – I love the breadth of your interests on this blog. I’ve been really busy, but I’m enjoying the Elvis chronicles very much. Sorry I haven’t been telling you so all along.

    • sheila says:

      Jane – happy birthday!!

      There is also an Elvis connection with Pearl Harbor – in 1961, he held a benefit fundraising concert in Hawaii to raise money for the memorial at the USS Arizona. So everyone who goes to visit that site today has Elvis, in part, to thank. He was very proud of that.

      And thanks for commenting!

  3. milt says:

    FDR has become extremely relevant at present. I recently read two highly informative and enjoyable books relating to the New Deal: The Woman Behind the New Deal by Kirstin Downey, a biography of Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor and the first woman cabinet secretary, who championed many social reforms, including social security, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, etc.; and The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter, subtitled FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.

    When Roosevelt ran for President he made it a tradition, on the Saturday before Election Day, to ride in a motorcade that touched each of New York City’s five boroughs. I was a kid when he ran for his fourth term, and the motorcade was scheduled to pass down a main thoroughfare only one long block away. Roosevelt was a god in my neighborhood (I bolted out the door in shock when told he had died), so I eagerly anticipated the motorcade. Roosevelt was in very poor health, but he still undertook the motorcade in an open limousine on a cold, drizzly Saturday.
    I went to the designated street, got a good spot and grew excited as the limousine approached. As it approached my spot, Roosevelt turned and waved to the crowd–on the other side of the street! All I saw was the back of his hat. Yet I still treasure the moment.

  4. sheila says:

    Milt!! What a fantastic story!

  5. Irv O. Neil says:

    Thanks for reprinting the entire speech and noting its edits. I had never read it in its entirety before, just knew the “infamy” line. What a masterpiece of forthright expression.

  6. sheila says:

    Irv – Indeed. Masterful, blunt, and emotional.

  7. Seely says:

    The Westerly Sun was not the only paper to publish the story on 12/7/41. Numerous other papers had regular Sunday afternoon additions and most newspapers put out an extra edition or two on that Sunday. Visit http://www.ussarizona.org/features/newspaper-archives/1914-1941 which has PDF files of some of those other papers.

    • sheila says:

      Cool! Thanks for the additional info!

      I’m sure proud Rhode Island is on the list. And we’re not talking about extra additions – we’re talking about a Sunday afternoon paper. But thanks anyway!

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